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Alba had a fleeting crush on a girl from his village back when he was still able to hide behind his mother’s skirts and it wasn’t frowned upon, even if years later his mother never minded the hands of the eleven year old him who was much too big to be truly obscured by her small frame.

There’s no school in his village; the closest one available was much too far to get to without any form of transportation they could not afford or attain nearby, and Alba had long since resigned himself to spilling drool on the books his father managed to bring him when he returned from wherever it was he always traveled to, fast asleep over smudging black ink on time-worn yellowed pages. He saw his father less and less, and so his book collection never grew.

Still, he read them every day as if he didn’t already have the cover and back engraved in his head, and as he grew older the words become clearer and his pronunciation smoother. His mother used to stutter through bedtime stories she hadn’t yet memorised (there’s only so many books her husband could bring back before leaving again for longer and longer each time), pausing every now and then to squint at the words she couldn’t quite pronounce. Like her son and her village, she was not blessed with the opportunity to learn in a proper school environment, so without any resources available she enlisted the help of her beloved traveling doctor who would always jump in the chance to guide his young son and wife. Midnight Frühling was not a family man despite his soft features and gentle voice; he lived for the world and not for its people, seeking adventure where it could be found and attracting it to him where it’s not, but little could sever the love he felt for the family that will always be his true home. (Mother says, with starstruck eyes and a smile too sweet, that he’s a free soul who could not be tied down, but Alba doesn’t really think that’s a good thing.)

So Alba read, he learned, and he grew. He rarely enlisted his mother’s help anymore, and it was him instead who read to her before his bedtime comes. In a small, run-down village where everyone knew each other and never strayed away for generations or left to chase a bigger dream only to come back shortly after after realising there’s nothing out there for people like them, reading and writing was the most novel one could be. Alba knew he was lucky his father, absent as he may be, was an outsider, an educated outsider, and therefore someone with real knowledge of the world outside the flimsy fences of his nature-conquered village.

His education wasn’t outstanding by any means; it was passable at best and downright sloppy at worst, but in this ragtag town it worked. Perhaps not in this place that required no reading or writing as much as it asks for brute strength to carry crops to the stores, but it had been impressive enough it made the residents look at him twice in surprise.

(I want to be a researcher, he used to say long, long before the letter from the king had arrived to tell him his fate was to hunt down the Demon Lord as a Chosen Hero. I want to make use of this skill I worked for.)

He’s eight and when he finally talks to the older girl who works at the small local bakery when she snuck extra bread into his order. Alba had found the treat with a sense of alarm —surely she made a mistake— and came back just before the bakery closes. When he voiced the error, taught by his mother to always be just and do the right thing, the girl winked at him and placed her index finger to her lips, successfully quieting him.

He walked away, awed and clutching the new treats she gave him, and his cheeks were flushed at the thought of a girl being this kind to him unprecedentedly — of anyone being this kind to him. He had been used to a desolate existence where people ignoring him was the kindest they could be; he forgot, sometimes, that it’s normal for boys his age to be out and play around in dirt with friends, but he had none to speak of. The few children there are raised their noses his way and turned to look elsewhere.

He gave his thanks by showing her one of his favourite books because he wasn’t very sure what friends did, and during her break time she sat besides him and looked over his shoulder to words she could not quite read herself.

He was a little smug, yes, and he squared his shoulders and straightened his back to make himself look a little bit taller, even if she towered over him by two heads.

“You’re very smart for someone who taught himself,” she had told him kindly, pretty brown eyes skimming over the faded letters. “Papa and I can’t even sribble down receipts for the bakery.” It’s an off-hand comment that borders on the self-deprecation born from people like them who never had their paths lead them somewhere outside their little town, feeling themselves unfit for anything grander the city could bring them.

So he scurried off to learn more things to impress her with, and she continued to give him extra pastries. His strange beating, beating heart continued as he went home and asked his mother about the butterflies in his stomach. There was no one wiser than her, after all.

“Aru-tan,” the affectionate nickname is something his mother has never let go of and never will despite her son’s flustered protests the older he gets, and the smile that always graces her features widened in delight. “You are an idiot.”

“Mom!?”

“You’re in love,” she hummed, nodding to herself absentmindedly as she sliced a carrot with terrifying speed and accuracy.

You’re just gonna go on without acknowledging you insulted me!?

Still, her words were sobering, even if love is still too strong of a word for him, only eleven and knowing little of the world outside the village gates that fell apart every spring rainfall.

It didn’t last long, and the feeling of warmth that pleasantly spread within him around the baker’s daughter was nothing compared to the sound of his heart breaking when, just a day later, he had rounded the corner to their usual meeting spot and seeing her in the arms of another man. Today he likes to pretend he didn’t run away and cried himself to sleep laying down in the muddy forest ground.

So it isn’t that Alba is a connoisseur of love — on the contrary; his experience was so limited it was difficult to distinguish that feeling from the myriad of emotions that composed the entirety of his heart (and he’s a boy who feels too much, too strongly), but he likes to think he knows enough to recognise it within himself.

He’s got some experience under his belt, after all, and as soon as he begins to feel that bubbling warmth that causes his stuttering heartbeat, he thinks: oh no. God, no. No, no, no, no, no.

Ros had simply said, hand ruffling Alba’s brown hair almost affectionately: “I can’t help but feel the way you don’t back down from a challenge is pretty amazing.” And suddenly, Alba’s heart was stolen.

 

 

 

He’s sixteen and hopelessly naive when he sets a foot out of his home with gloves that don’t quite fit as snugly as they look and embarks on his journey to the castle for an audience with the king who has chosen him, unremarkable little Alba who hit the two digit mark of years of age until he could finally feel comfortable enough to sleep without his favourite teddy bear, to hunt down the Demon Lord Rchimedes.

The responsibility weights heavier than the broadsword he still hasn’t fully learned how to use, and oftentimes instead of feeling it settle upon his shoulders like the capes from the heroes his books speak wonders about, it’s a noose around his neck that tightens with each reminder he’s not the right person for the job no matter how much he tries.

Royal soldier Ros is so much bigger than life Alba finds it impossible not to feel suffocatingly overwhelmed when he stands besides him and absolutely towers over him. He’s cryptic in a way Alba isn’t used to, presenting himself as someone whose secrets run so thick there was no blade that could make a dent on them to delve them out. Sometimes Alba wonders if he bled black instead of red, because even that would be less implausible than ever thinking he could divulge whatever mysteries Ros keeps so well hidden.

“Why do you want to be a hero?” It’s a question Alba gets a lot, but he wasn’t exactly expecting it from the soldier appointed to aid him. He is a hero already and has the emblem to prove it so, but he has yet to defeat anything bigger than a slime the size of his hand, so he supposes he hasn’t fully earned the title yet. He wonders if he ever would.

I want to protect the peace of this world, is what he and many would say, but Ros is pinning him down with that inscrutable gaze of his that sometimes makes the hairs in the back of his neck stand, and Alba decides that if they were to be traveling together for an indefinite amount of time, he at least deserved a little more honesty than what he would give a passerby whose path would never cross his again. His desire to save the world was not a lie; there’s a strong sense of righteousness that guides his heart, a compassion for the weaker ones who needed protection for he had been one (is one, still) himself, but he remembers how poorly Ros had reacted when talking about a forced justice back when they first met at that crumbling bar. Alba isn’t sure what he meant at that time, and he is certainly not eager to ask. Ros was scary enough unprovoked.

He doesn’t think much about it and says, if a little embarrassed, “I want to repay my mom for all she’s done for me. We don’t have much back in my home, you know? And she even learned how to read just so she could teach me.”

“Ehh? You can read, Hero-san?” Ros’s mouth gapes in a genuinely surprised expression that makes Alba bristle.

“Why do you look so surprised?!” And sure, his fellow villagers had also been surprised, but that was because it was a hard skill to come by around there, not because of the blatant condescension Ros was displaying.

He takes pride in the accomplishment that comes so rare from where he’s from, so he huffs in a strange mix of annoyance and pride.

“Of course I can,” he can’t help but brag, palm flat across his chest right over his heart. Ros stares at him, resting his chin on his hand. There’s a bandage wrapped around his left wrist that Alba only noticed when he stripped off all the armour just earlier, the moon up high in the sky. Alba wonders if he got injured in their last fight, but then remembers he hadn’t done anything except stand back while Alba got punched in the face by a Nisepanda and discards the idea. Fashion, maybe? “And it’s all thanks to her! So I wanna give her something back in return.”

“It’s not a child’s job to repay their parents for something they’re obliged to do,” mutters Ros, and he gets that clouded look in his eyes Alba seldom manages to notice sometimes, looking like he was staring at something far away, sitting somewhere out of Alba’s reach. It’s the look he gets that makes him seem so much older than he is, the one where his hair obscures the bright crimson of his irises and darken the bags under his eyes Alba had never truly paid any attention to before.

Ros is so much wiser than Alba can ever hope to be. The few years that separate them suddenly feel like a thousand in moments like these, with the flames of their makeshift camp flickering a warm orange glow to Ros’s finer features.

He’s a strange guy. Sometimes he’d seem surprised at mundane things, like he has been living isolated in a cave for the past few decades (he earned a jab in the ribs for saying this one time, just strong enough to make him double over in pain and have a bruise for three days that he doesn’t stop complaining about), and other times it feels like he has been walking the earth for years beyond his age. But despite all of Ros’s experience and all his wisdom hidden behind heavily wounding sarcasm, despite how small and insignificant he feels in comparison, Alba swallows down his feelings of inferiority and battles for his beliefs, always.

“That may be true,” he licks his lips as he finds them dry, perhaps out of nervousness more than necessity. He doesn’t know when he began to nurture this need to impress Ros, but his shoulders tense at the thought of him regarding him as some kind of…phoney. He tells himself it’s because as a royal soldier Ros has to respect the hero he serves, but it truly has nothing to do with their positions and everything to do with Alba’s chilling realizations that he’s not a hero to begin with, regardless of the emblem he wears around his neck. He needed someone to believe in him, because he couldn’t do it himself. “But even heroes need support, right? It should be common sense to help the people who supported you.”

Ros’s eyebrows rise, and then he scoffs out a short laugh. He lets his weight fall on the tree trunk he had been leaning against, tilting his head back with closed eyes. The bandaged hand runs through his black hair, and he seems more relaxed than he had been since they met. Peaceful. “I guess you’re right, Hero-san. Even you have something smart to say sometimes.”

Alba has only known him for a couple of days and can immediately pluck the backhanded compliment from the soldier’s deceptively pleasant words, but a compliment is a compliment in whatever form it may come, and though he scowls, he can’t help the pleased flush that rushes to his cheeks. Praise is rare where he’s from, and he uses it to kindle the flame of his determination.

Ros’s tongue is poisonous and his smiles mirror the sharpness of knives with the cutting insults that seep through them, but Alba learns with time that his strictness is usually a form of teaching. Despite rarely getting involved in battles, Alba has witnessed time and time again just how strong he really is. One must be, he muses, to be a royal soldier, and it’s only to be expected for the hero to be stronger. But Alba isn’t strong — he’s sixteen and scrawny and still has trouble swinging his broadsword, trips over his own feet with boots that don’t fit quite right. He’s not a hero yet, but he will be.

He won’t give up, ever. He doesn’t know how to.

 

 

 

 

 

Ruki joins months later, and they’re a strange little group, the three of them. Saving the world somehow changes into helping Ruki, but when he’s sitting around a firework hearing her bubbling laughter brightening up the night more than the flames ever could, he can’t say he regrets where that path has led them.

She talks a bit about her dad, voice laced with equal amounts of melancholy and fondness, and it hasn’t hit him quite yet that she’s a child all alone in a world not her own. It’s easy to forget her burden when she turns to look at him with big, curious eyes, asking, “What about yours, Alba-san?”

“Well, I live with my mom—”

“You still live with your mother, Hero-san?” Ros’s interruption comes with a degradingly pitiful look, and Alba instinctively yells at him.

“I’m sixteen! Sixteen!”

“He’s a Mama’s boy,” Ruki nods as sagely as a ten year old can, to which Alba groans and sags his shoulders.

Tiredly, he turns his attention down to their cooking dinner.

“…What about you, Soldier? I don't think you’ve ever talked about your family before.” Had he not been preoccupied with turning the still uncooked fish around the fire he might have noticed the conspiring looks Ros and Ruki shared, but when he looks back up at them she’s humming and playing with her sleeves. Alba takes a second to wonder if he should trim them for her soon, but he’s not exactly good at sewing…or at many household chores, at that. The most he could do was cook deep-fried food, and even then his skills were questionable. It was a miracle the three of them have survived for as long as they have.

In typical Ros fashion, he only gives a bright grin as he pipes in with morbid humour. “My mother is dead and my father is a murderer on the run. I’m on a journey to hunt him down, you see.”

“Don’t even joke about things like that!” Horrified, Alba accidentally dropped the fish he was holding, the soft thud of it hitting the ground drowned by his yell. He sighs heavily, but both of his companions look at him curiously when it comes out as half a laugh instead of drained exasperation. Traveling with these two has done wonders to his sense of humour.

Though his dinner is ruined, he takes a tissue to clean the dirt off his catch, unhurried. Any other day he’d be beside himself with panic at wasting food with the limited resources they had during their travels, but fortune had been kind to them, and they found a safe place to set a camp in between tall trees with generous amounts of fruit that might as well have been sent by whatever god looked out for them. He and Ros had already secured as many apples and oranges they could get their hands on and given them to Ruki so she could store them away, so one wasted fish was hardly a waste at all. Alba wondered if Mi-chan would want it instead, and he laughs a little louder at the thought.

It was a little hard to stay upset, given their situation.

“Well, it’s fine, isn’t it?” he mumbles, a small smile playing by his lips. “I mean, we have each other. Ruki, you, me…We’re kind of a family ourselves, don’t you think?”

He thinks of the colder nights where they couldn’t afford more than a rundown inn room with a single bed and Ros immediately settling down on the floor so Ruki could claim it, of himself sitting down with Ruki and teaching her multiplications the days were the heavy rain wouldn’t allow them to continue their journey. Thinks of Ros pretending not to notice when Alba scurries off to hide behind him when he becomes frightened of something, and of Ruki stepping in to defend what little dignity Alba had left whenever Ros’s teasing turned too sharp and cut too deep.

He thinks of home, too. Of his hardworking mother who gave all of herself so he could grow up wanting for nothing despite his village lacking everything, of his father whose absence stopped hurting long ago, of the only girl who had been kind to him, of the villagers who only thought his reading skills were impressive but nothing to truly brag about because no one born there was destined for anything greater than seeding and harvesting crops with blistered bare hands. His father had been the exception, not the rule. Perhaps it was too much to ask for that his son were the same.

Ros and Ruki were his first friends, and though it’s something that he only realizes now, there’s nothing novel about it. He doesn’t feel his stomach knot with shame, nor does he feel the telltale signs of embarrassment creeping up his chest to stain the tip of his ears a rose colour — it’s only natural that the two people who turned his world upside down became the two people most important to him.

To him, they were as good as family at this point.

He’s ripped right out of his nostalgic reveries by muffled laughter, and his head snaps up to see Ros pointing at him with an incriminatory finger and Ruki’s hands pressed over her mouth, the shaking of her shoulders a clear giveaway of her poor effort to conceal her amusement. Flushing a bright red, Alba stutters, almost dropping the fish again, “w-what!?”

We’re kind of a family ourselves, don’t you think?” Ros imitates him, high pitched voice a terrible imitation of Alba’s because he definitely did not sound like that, and Ruki snorts with laughter. “Uwaah~…How embarrassing, Hero-san! Aren’t you embarrassed by saying such an embarrassing thing? I’m embarrassed for you.”

“Stop saying the word embarrassing so much! I get it! Stop it!” But Ros does not stop it, and Alba feels foolish for even hoping he would.

He looms over Alba with a mocking grin, the flicker of the fire between them giving his face an ominous shadow. Alba shrinks into himself, face burning.

“Have you been playing house this whole time, hmm?”

“I have not!”

“Have you been thinking of me as the husband and you as the wife? Ruki as our child?” She drops all pretence of compassion to guffaw freely, and Alba’s eyes frantically dart from the soldier to the young Demon Lord and wondering, not for the first time, what unforgivable felony he must have committed in a past life to deserve this punishment. “Is that your fantasy, Hero-san?”

“It’s not!”

The fish is ruined anyway, so he feels no remorse throwing it at Ros’s face. It doesn’t hit, of course, but it’s passably satisfying nonetheless.

He's so infuriating. Alba’s experience with love was limited and unreliable, but he can at the very least tell this —whatever it is that he feels for Ros— was not a crush.

 

 

“Who does he think he is?” Ros is asleep inside their tent, but Alba knows better than to raise his voice even as indignation makes his fists instinctively clench. Ros was a disturbingly light sleeper, and the last thing Alba wanted to do was to accidentally wake him up and get a bruise in return.

Ruki hums, then hits her tiny palm with her tiny fist.

“It’s like when elementary school kids pick on the person they like!”

Alba smiles wryly.

“…That’s not really comforting, you know? Actually, that kind of behaviour is troubling.”

“Ros-san may be shy,” What part of him was shy!? “But I don’t think he dislikes Alba-san.”

“Really…”

Alba eyes the closed tent skeptically.

He knew Ros didn’t dislike him, not truly, but sometimes he just had to wonder if the pleasure he attained from watching Alba’s despair outweighed his tolerance of him as a person. It was a little hard not to take that personally.

Ruki nods earnestly, her feet kicking the air from where her legs dangled on the edge of the rock she had chosen as her seat.

“Really! He’s not the type of person to stick around someone he hates. He hasn’t left yet, has he?”

She has a point. They had the entire continent seeking Alba’s head on a platter with the hefty sum of money the king had offered for his capture due to his supposed conspiring together with the Demon Lord, and never once had Ros shown any indications of leaving him to fend off by himself. They only wanted Alba, after all; Ros didn’t have any obligations to be with him as his royal guard anymore, not when his boss had been the one to put out the bounty. He highly doubted Ros was someone who cared for something as ephemeral as world peace, either. Perhaps he took his job very seriously even if the royalty he served deemed them traitors, but that didn’t seem so likely.

He gets Alba in trouble more often than he gets him out of it, has got him to thank for most of his…visits to prison, and he most definitely enjoys watching him struggle more than anyone with common decency should, but in the end, Ros always did have Alba’s best interests in mind, however disguised they may be.

Alba does notice how Ros is the one who leads the way of their journey but only chooses paths that harbour monsters Alba was strong enough to deal with by his own, and never has he purposely pushed him into a situation where his life might be seriously in danger. When something proves too much, too big for Alba, who sometimes doesn’t know when to draw his own lines, Ros always steps in to lend a helping hand. It’s never in a princely manner where he swoops in to save his distressed companion and make sure he was alright and uninjured, no — it’s often presented with a scathing remark that reminded Alba how much a pathetic hero he was and made him think he’d rather prefer getting beaten up by a smug lion than hear Ros’s clear disapproval stabbing through him, but also with the thinly veiled suggestion that they should go around areas like those to avoid any more incidents.

He has a strange way to protect Alba despite it all. If he truly wanted to leave he would have walked out on them any time now, but he never once spoke of any desire to do so, so…Alba liked to believe that he liked him, if only just a little.

They were friends, weren’t they?

Alba laughs weakly, “Ruki-chan, I think you might be the most mature of us all…”

Ruki flashes him a satisfied, toothy grin.

“Alba-san is so pitifully weak even Ros-san wouldn’t leave you alone to die!”

“Ruki-chan—!?”

Even at the cruelty of her words, she giggles, and he feels himself lighter. Ros was strict and mocking and rude, but…there’s an underlying kindness buried beneath layers and layers of guarded scorn, and even as Alba’s neck and pride hurt from looking up at him, there’s no denying he’s as human as he himself is. Ros is not invincible, and somehow it is that humanity that gives Alba hope.

He has nightmares sometimes, less often now that Ruki joined them, and though he does not know the soldier well enough to tell so with enough confidence, he suspects he does what he can to spare her of his night terrors.

The first time Alba had woken to the sound of harsh breathing near his side, he had clumsily grabbed his sword and almost tripped in his attempt to stand up to fight whatever threat had stumbled into them, but he didn’t see any looming monsters or bandits sniffing out treasures to steal from unsuspecting travellers.

He’d seen Ros laying on his side, right hand clutching the wrist he always kept bandaged under his long sleeve and armour, tightly clenched teeth visible from the snarl on his lips, a drop of sweat sliding down his furrowed brow. Alba had faltered in his surprise, half expecting this to be some kind of prank, one where Ros made himself look vulnerable to get Alba to drop his guard in order to jump at him and say something insulting under the pretence of teaching him not to relax around his enemies.

It never came.

He was mumbling something, but when Alba took a step forward to hear him better, unarmed hand outstretched to rouse him awake, Ros’s eyes had snapped open and Alba had no second of warning before his throat met the intimidatingly sharp end of his companion’s sword — a sword that, incidentally, was bigger and broader than Alba himself, who stood at a pathetically short height for a supposedly healthy teenage boy.

The blade dug into his skin just enough to break the skin, and Alba found no shame in the panicked screech that tore out of his lips.

“S-soldier!”

His voice was a flipped switch — Ros blinked, mouth agape, eyes clear, and had ungracefully pulled his sword away, almost clumsily taking a step backwards.

Alba was quick to mirror his movements, his own sword carelessly dropped by his feet as his hands flew up to his throat to inspect the damage by reflex, horrified to feel a wetness much too thick to be mere sweat.

It hadn't been any deeper than a simple cut, but it was not the injury itself that had him shaking.

His eyes flickered back to Ros, who remained frozen still, watching each other like animals readying themselves to run away at the slightest indication of noise.

“Hero-san…” Ros’s voice was quiet with something Alba would later come to identify as anxiety, and though he had taken no steps to approach him, Alba wasn’t sure whether it was to give him space to breathe or if he didn’t trust himself enough to do move.

He had never seen him so shaken before, with eyes wide and sweat dripping down his brow and fist clenched so tightly his knuckles turned white. It had been the moment he realized there was more to Ros than the royal soldier with an irritating talent of teasing Alba and an unexpected love for everything sweet and sugary, and that he didn't know who he really was.

I don't know anything about him, Alba thought. I want to get to know him.

He never truly apologised for it, but Alba wasn’t expecting him to, just like he wasn’t expecting a repetition or two or three. He tried bring it up once, but the glare he had received had been enough to make him freeze before he could even finish the question of what were you dreaming about? It never occurred him to ask, what were you remembering?

Alba had summed it up to Ros and his many mysteries. He hoped one day he would learn them through Ros’s lips rather than his nightmares, so he never spoke of them again and kept quietly leaving a bottle of water next to him instead.

Ros never apologized for them, but he did say thank you when he believed Alba to be too deep into slumber to hear.

There was no way someone like that could be a bad person. Travelling with him was fun, and, even if given the opportunity to, Alba wouldn’t want to change it for the world.

 

 

 

 

Alba is almost seventeen when Ros disappears from his life as suddenly as he had barged in, and six months in after their separation Alba still can’t get used to waking up alone, but it does become easier. He never starts his day without Ros’s red scarf securely tied around his belt; it’s a reminder of his purpose and a source of strength for when doubt clouded his will and made him falter.

He’s covered in blood he isn’t sure is his or from the monsters he’s slain one day when he returns to the cheap motel room he and Ruki have been sharing for the past few days. Lost in his quest for strength, it hadn’t occurred to him to leave a note for Ruki to wake up to and found him gone. He didn’t think he’d take long, but he sees dawn falling upon the sky from the window the little girl had been kneeling in front of, and when she hears the door closing, she stands up so quickly she almost trips in her own clothes.

The call of his name gets caught in her own gasp, face pale and eyes wide and mouth agape. Alba has to glance over his shoulder to make sure she’s looking at him and not at some kind of ghost, because he’s never seen her so horrified. It takes him a moment to look down at himself, splattered in gore both his and not, and he scratches the back of his neck sheepishly.

“Sorry, I look pretty gross, huh? I’ll go shower now. Aah, I should wash my clothes too…”

“Alba-san! You’re an idiot! Idiot!”

“Wha—” Ruki launches herself at him, and he almost thinks she’s going to punch him for being late, but she throws her arms around his abdomen and squeezes tight with a strength one wouldn’t expect for a girl so small. He’s about to question her, his own hands up in the air, unsure of what to do, until he feels her shoulders shaking against him.

“Idiot! Idiot!”

Her voice breaks and so does his confusion, and only when her crying twists her words into incomprehensible sobs does he allow himself to exhale a shaky breath. Lost in his pursue of power, in trying to shape himself into a hero Ros would be proud of, he had forgotten the reason he had become one in the first place.

He realizes he doesn’t have to be strong for himself. He has to be strong for her, too. That’s the kind of hero Ros believed him to be.

“I’m sorry, Ruki-chan.” his throat is tight and his voice raspy, but he manages an apology he knows won’t change anything unless he himself does. “I’m so sorry.”

He threads his fingers through her long hair, finds knots where they shouldn’t be, and feels yet another pang of guilt when he remembers he’s been missing their nightly routine where he brushed her hair and tied it into a braid so it wouldn’t mat in the morning. It’s a skill he learned from Hime-chan from one of his trips to the castle for a mandatory yet tediously unnecessary check up with the king, one that proved incredibly useful when they were out in their journey with only each other as company.

Their first nights had been silent with fresh grief and quiet goodnights, but Ruki had always been the first to rise in the morning with a determined grin, pulling at Alba’s hand when he moved too slow, the first one to make suggestions when they reached a dead end, the one to make sure Alba wasn’t taking on too much. She had been the true reason he hadn't forgotten his goal, not the red scarf he always kept by his side. Ruki had lost too many people already; Alba wasn’t the only one who felt Ros’s absence, and he wasn’t going to be another checkmark in her list of dead loved ones.

His throat closes up painfully, and he only has apologies on his lips as Ruki clings to him and wails, face buried in the torn fabric of his shirt, just above a gash that will most likely leave a scar to join the myriad of them he’s collected all these months. His blood clings to her tear-stained cheeks, but she only holds him tighter and refuses to let go. Alba cries with her. Cries for what they’ve lost, cries at their helplessness to take any of it back. Cries in sorrow for all those nights they had no roof to shield their freezing bodies from the rain, and cries in rage for all the days a sword and a heart full of drive weren’t always enough to defeat all obstacles in their way.

He couldn’t save Ros with determination alone, and it scares him that the world is so vast and he can’t understand it all.

He’s no longer the protégé, though — he’s become Ruki’s guardian and not the guarded. Like Ros had done with him, it was his turn to protect her, even if it’s from himself.

He takes it easier, after that. He and Ruki seldom leave each other’s side, and he gives her free reign to lecture him when he does something reckless she disapproves of. She helps him find a grip when he becomes unstable, battle-weary and worn as he’s become, and he can’t imagine where he’d be without her in this journey everyone else deemed impossible.

When they save Ros together, Ruki will take the credit upon herself, and Alba won’t be able to deny it. He's got her to thank for getting this far.

 

 

 

 

Alba’s number of friends had never seen better days, even with Ros gone; Alles likes to use him as the guinea pig for her newest machinery, and he has a feeling Hime-chan doesn’t know the prototypes of Hime-dam were tested thoroughly on him before they were safe enough to be used by her. It’s a suspicion he hasn’t brought up to Alles, but he finds enough confirmation when it’s three in the morning and stumbles upon Alles muttering her way through repairs, a wrench scratching at her temple and the pencil tapping impatiently at the hazard of papers in the royal garage’s desk sketching plans after plans.

Alba’s perception of a princess had been heavily shaped by the fairy tales he used to read as a child: demure and unendingly kind, with a touch so delicate flowers would sprout wherever they walked. Hime-chan defies any of those expectation he ever had, torn between the weight of responsibility from the crown and her young reckless heart, and when he learns not to be starstruck at the presence of royalty with pretty blue eyes and long beautiful blonde hair, he learns they have a lot in common. She’ll make a fine queen, he’s sure, a fairer ruler than her greedy father had ever been.

He and Foyfoy tiptoe around a tentative friendship and waltz right into a comfortable companionship that often leads them to find a seat in the well-groomed grass of the castle gardens exchanging training methods and tips. The former hero was eccentric enough to stun Alba with his strange choice of speech, but he had a sound judgement and an unexpected protective streak that didn’t let Alba become too reckless in his journey towards strength. Like this, it was hard to believe they once stood at the opposite end of each other’s swords.

There’s a butler he sometimes sees around the castle clad in the standard uniform that was never worn quite right — just enough to be presentable, sure, but leaving enough clues to realise he had most likely risen from bed five minutes earlier. They've never really talked, but he’s seen him being dragged around by Alles by his striped tie and sporting multiple bruises with the shape of the princess’s fist, and perhaps it’s an awful thing for him to say, but Alba does feel a silent sense of comradeship. Ros never pulled any punches, after all, and Ruki had the tendency to get a little too forceful in her excitement, so Alba makes sure to smile at him whenever they cross paths.

Mii-chan’s interests aside, he’s the closest thing Alba has to a stable confidant. His appearance deceives judgemental eyes from the wisdom he’s capable of sharing, and his levelheadedness is something Alba can always rely on regardless of the situation.

Janua visits often enough not to cause any outstanding changes in his surroundings, as he knows his presence isn’t welcome in the fragile dimensions of the human world, but his simplemindedness often proved a soothing cure for the many times Alba’s complex thoughts made him miss the bigger picture. Samejima tags along sometimes, and his strange use of logic gives Alba a boost in confidence.

It gets overwhelming, sometimes, to be surrounded by so many people who were interested in what he had to say, who genuinely wished to see him succeed. He remembers being eight years old and throwing crumbs of bread at the squirrels interested in playing with his shoelaces while the children of his village played tag with each other. Last time he joined them, the game of hide and seek stretched into the late hours of the night with him still waiting to be found even as he heard their laughter nearby.

Friends are still a strange concept. Friends are no longer forest animals who didn’t laugh at him and didn’t stick their foot out for him to stumble on.

Friends are Foyfoy correcting his sword stance, Alles teaching him maintenance, Hime-chan offering him apologies for her father over a cup of tea, the butler who sometimes manages to return his smiles, Mii-chan offering a sympathetic ear to Alba's complaints, Janua and Samejima giving him a new perspective.

Ros’s absence made him realise many things. He realises he can’t keep depending on a person who was not there, and he realises that he’s not alone, not anymore, and that he will fight to keep things as they are no matter what. This time, he couldn’t count on Ros to come and save him when things got rough. There will be no hand helping him up when a particular monster proved too much for him, no words of advice coated in thick layers of mockery that will remind Alba to know his limits and not push himself beyond them at the risk of seriously hurting himself.

His broadsword never quite stops feeling so heavy, but he’s no longer sixteen and bright-eyed, and so he stops feeling sorry for himself and swears that when he and Ros next meet, he will be someone worthy of the title of Hero. This time, it was his turn to save him, just like Ros had always saved him.

 

 

 

 

When Ros comes back, Alba holds his head high and looks him in the eyes and says, with a voice that doesn't waver, “I've always wanted to see you”, but I didn’t stay sitting down doing nothing. I’ve become the hero you believe I am.

 

 

 

 

Lake looks so much like Ros it’s jarring. The kid is made from uncontrollable energy that prevented him from staying in one place for too long, and his loose lips often ended up in the wounded prides of those he unknowingly insulted. Alba’s been at the end of that spectrum a little too often to his liking once Ros reconnected with the family he believed lost.

It’s just as jarring to see him stand before him with a determined frown in his face that is only seen on Ros when he’s about to deliver one of his sarcastic one-liners that leave bruises on Alba’s ego, so by instinct he tenses up, ready to retort —

“How do I know I have a crush?”

— and gapes.

“A crush?” Alba has traveled the world with the hero of legend and the third demon king, fought both against and besides the second, and he’s taken completely aback by a ten year old asking about crushes.

He smiles bemusedly, and Lake takes it as an invitation to keep talking. He takes the seat in front of Alba’s desk, his mop of black hair barely visible behind the mountainous piles of Alba’s research.

“Everyone at school says Lym and I like each other,” he says gravely, as if he were discussing war politics instead of school gossip. It’s not like Alba knew better, anyway — he didn’t go to school, and he definitely did not have friends to tease him about his possible crushes on girls his age.

Pushing both his books and confusion aside to get a better look at the boy, Alba ponders how out of all the unexpected situations he's been pushed into Ros’s little older brother asking him about crushes is the one that leaves him feeling truly out of his element.

“Well,” he starts, unsure. “What do you think of Lym?”

“Lym is Lym!” In his outburst, Lake almost pushes off the books off the desk, but Alba only smiles indulgently. “She’s very responsible, and always reminds Salt and I to not eat too many hamburgers before bed!”

“Then how do you feel about her?” He cringes at the awkwardness of his own conduct, but manages to power through somehow. It’s kind of nice to have people come to him for help, so he clings to that feeling.

Lake frowns further, sinking down on his chair and folding his arms. Like this, he looks exactly like the young Ros from his childhood, unburdened by a world where his most troubling task was coming up with new ways to prank his father and best friend.

“Lym is pretty,” he says simply. “I’m always really happy when we’re hanging out! Sometimes, when I look at her I feel like when I finish running with Salt.”

“Running with Salt…?”

Lake nods enthusiastically, placing his hand above his chest and giving himself a few pats. “Yeah! Like, it’s a little hard to breathe, and my heart is punching me from the inside!”

What an odd description. For a moment, Alba sees himself in Lake instead of Ros, eleven and trying to show off his books to the baker’s daughter back at his village, and then sixteen and naive and blushing when recalling the moment Ros had patted his head and had said: I can’t help but feel the way you don’t back down from a challenge is pretty amazing.

Alba says hesitantly, ignoring his own beating heart, “I…it sounds like you do have a crush on her, Lake.”

Lake hums a soft little oooh, but he seems to take the revelation in stride and instead nods quickly to himself. Alba wishes it had been that easy for him too. He’s only eighteen… When had he gotten so old he yearned for the simplemindedness of the youth?

“Thank you, Alba-san! I’ll go tell her right now!”

“No problem, though I don’t know why you came to me for this,” he chuckles weakly. Foyfoy, despite his appearance, was an earnest guy who gave heartfelt advice, and he cared deeply for his students. Surely he was better fit for the job of advisor. “I don’t know anything about this kind of stuff.”

Thank god Ros wasn’t here to see this. Sometimes the world was kind to Alba every once in a blue moon.

Lake looks up at him, frown easing into bewilderment.

“You don’t?” There’s a hint of disbelief in his question, and perhaps Alba should be flattered the kid thinks he has some kind of romantic expertise good enough to seek advice from, but then he says with that serious expression of his, “But you have a crush on Shii-tan, right?”

Alba’s mouth audibly snaps shut.

Then he laughs.

Lake is too busy hurrying off to find Lym to hang around and see him laughing himself into hysteria, and Alba finds no comfort in the solace of the cave. He buries his face in his hands, books and magic studies long forgotten, and laughs more.

Of course that was what that feeling was.

 

 

Lake doesn’t seem to have mentioned their talk to his brother, much to Alba’s desperate relief. Ros is sitting on Alba’s desk instead of using the chair, book open on his lap and going out his way to explain its contents to Alba like one would a child who had barely begun reading.

He’s underestimating me again, Alba thinks bitterly, and he brushes a stray strand of hair away from his forehead as he hears his friend read slowly.

“I can do better than this,” he bites out, but instead of poking fun at his —very childish, admittedly— irritation like Alba surely thought he would, Ros is silent.

His thumb brushes the page he’s marked, its contents highlighted in bright yellows and greens and pinks and covered in apple-shaped post-its Ruki had gotten Alba as a souvenir. He glances over at Alba’s hands stained with marker ink that could not cover his calloused skin, then back at the notes.

He appears pensive, and, almost absentmindedly, says, “Yeah, I guess you can.” And he looks back at him with tender eyes, the corner of his lips curled into one of those private smiles he hates to share. Alba’s breath catches in his throat.

You have a crush on Shii-tan, right?

Whatever Ros says next is lost, buried under the wailing sound of Alba’s suffering groan.

 

 

 

 

Alba is nineteen when he accepts his own feelings. He’s had a lot of time to sit on it, and denying what he felt for Ros almost felt like disrespecting the friendship they had. He suspects Ruki had known all along, because she notices the way he had spent the first few months of his revelation avoiding his gaze and popping up the collar of his own shirt to hide his blushing cheeks. If Lake, infamous for being an airhead, had noticed, then surely his other best friend just have known before anyone else. She never said anything, but he’s caught her and Crea gossiping around like a couple of teenagers discussing a TV drama. He’s not very happy to know they think of his romantic struggles as an entertaining show, but they didn’t mention it to Ros, so he supposed it was alright.

Avoiding Ros hadn’t been a very stable idea to begin with when he was his only tutor, and he didn’t want to keep at it anyway, so he zipped his feelings up and locked them into a place he would hopefully never need to revisit.

Nothing ever goes his way, however, and that’s the lesson he’s always had a hard time accepting.

For this tutoring session, Ros is holding his hands with a touch so gentle Alba fears that the first thing that will come out of his mouth is that same secret he’s been trying so hard to hide. He bites his lip instead and waits for Ros to give him further instructions, acutely aware of his heart beating and hoping it wouldn’t be somehow heard.

He knows it’s not Ros being kind to him. This soft contact is a requirement for this particular magic, he recalls from his piles of textbooks. Sudden movements could only lead to disaster for a power as unstable as his. Perhaps Ros would’ve liked to see him freeze his own hands, but not when they're joined by his.

“It’s all about mental imagery. To generate heat, think of fire,” Ros instructs, rough hand overturning Alba’s own. Alba thinks, dryly, that his own embarrassment should be enough to generate heat, what with holding Ros’s hand without his usual gloves in the way. It's been a while since he wore those, switching his sword for a selection of magic books. “Kiddie stuff even pathetic Hero-san will be able to do, right?”

“Yeah, yeah…”

Alba is no longer sixteen and naive, or seventeen and overconfident, or eighteen and figuring out what to do with the worlds in his hands. He’s seen more than someone at nineteen should have, has fought wars too big for his body to handle and kept the scars to prove it, and so he no longer feels the traitorous butterflies in his stomach or the sped up stuttering of his heart whenever Ros so much as brushes his bare skin.

It’s not really a crush at this point, and he’s made his peace with it long enough ago to not be able to pinpoint the exact moment he realised it.

When Ros touches him, when he gives him one of his secret smiles, when his voice lowers to a drawl in a compliment masked with insults that only he was capable of making (Ruki really was right; Ros was incredibly shy, if you knew where to look), he knows the thundering of his own heartbeat he had felt before had been nothing compared to the warmth in his chest when Ros never fails to visit him for their scheduled tutoring sessions and stays for longer than he needs to, when he catches him looking at him with unmasked pride when he finally masters a spell he’s been struggling with for a while.

It’s nothing like knowing Ros will always stay by his side no matter what happens tomorrow and the days after, nothing like knowing that, if a future existed where he and Ros were not together, he’d do everything in his power to change it.

That’s what love is, after all.

“You know, Hero-san,” Ros speaks conversationally, but Alba doesn’t look up from where their hands are linked. He knows Ros well enough to know that what was about to come out of his mouth would be a painful jab at his dignity, and he’d rather not see the smug look on his face as he does it. “When I said you should generate heat, I didn’t mean you should start blushing like a virgin. Is this your first time holding someone else’s hand? It is, isn’t it?”

But Alba doesn’t respond. He flushes at the incrimination, because, well, it’s kind of true, but one of his hands holds Ros’s left one in place while the other curiously traces his skin, and suddenly Ros’s teasing was the farthest thing from his mind.

The bandage.

Ros doesn’t wear the thing around his wrist anymore like he used to all those years ago. Alba remembers wondering about it out loud and receiving only cryptic answers in return that did nothing but fuel a curiosity that never felt satisfaction. He doesn’t have anything to hide anymore, after all. Not from him.

He’d seen Ros die — had seen Shion, only twelve years of age, die at the hands of his own father. He remembers all too clearly even now, can perfectly recall within his memories the moment the boy’s eyes had dulled into the same shade of blood that was pooling around his lifeless body. Alba, only seventeen then, witnessing something he shouldn’t have but needed to, with his fists clenched and legs shaking and bile crawling up his throat, and for the first time hating the world that had caused Ros so much pain.

“Hero-san?” The teasing in Ros’s voice was guarded, but he didn’t make a move to pull away. He watches him carefully, quiet, impervious to the storm inside Alba’s head.

Alba hadn’t been able to do anything, then. He had known there was nothing he could do, nothing that could change the past without changing the future he wanted to save. It was only a memory and he but a phantom witness, unable do anything but watch as his best friend died before his eyes.

“Shion,” murmurs Alba, only to shake his head. “Ros.”

Ros, Ros, Ros. It’s always been about Ros, always been about Ruki, always been about his mother. It’s never been about keeping such a feeble thing as the peace of the world as much as it had been about keeping his loved ones safe and sound regardless of the consequences. He knows he’s not a very traditional hero, or a very admirable one. He doesn’t truly deserve the praise he gets for what he’s done, and even today he feels a pang of guilt for the people’s misplaced respect for him, feels dirty under the adoring gazes of the children who look up at him with bright eyes and their wishes to be just like him. He’s disgustingly selfish and his unwillingness to sit down and let things happen as they should can easily be mistaken for a kindness with no bounds.

Alba had been willing to sacrifice the entire world just to see Ros one last time. The people who look at him with admiration today had been the people whose lives he had readily put in danger without a second thought, and he would do it over and over and over again for him.

“Ros,” he starts again, but doesn’t continue. His breath hovers over Ros’s exposed skin, his name but a sigh on his lips. He lifts Ros’s hand up to his face and presses a kiss to the tip of his fingers. He thinks of the years Creasion wandered alone with nothing else but his memories turned into nightmares for company. No matter how much he tries to control them, Alba knows how bad they can get, even if Ros has only allowed him to see but a glimpse of them.

Years ago, Ros had to be the strong one and Alba had clung to that security with desperation. Now they stand eye to eye, and when the nightmares prove too much, they sit by each other in silence as Ros evens out his breaths and wipes the cold sweat off his forehead with sleeves much too worn from this routine, and Alba quietly fetches him a glass of cold water.

They never talk about it, but they didn’t need to. Alba no longer needed to say lean on me for Ros to do so.

...They weren’t really supposed to meet, if he thought about it. Ros had been born thousands of years ago to an era Alba had only read about in books much too faded to convey their true intentions, glossed over by historians who knew of Hero Creasion only by what they wanted him to be, glorified his pain for entertainment and told his tales as someone who gave his life for the people. They mentioned nothing of the anguish that guided his feet and the reluctance and kindness of his heart that made him seal his father into eternal sleep rather than killing him.

Creasion hadn’t been a fair man who sought justice for the Demon King’s crimes; he had been just out of his boyhood, mourning the loved ones he lost and cursing the world who took them.

Alba's lips abandon the tips of Ros’s fingers to go further down to his wrist where his mark had been back when he still had his power. They linger with a kiss to the now unmarred patch of pale skin and feels a racing heartbeat from where his own fingers hold down Ros’s hand, unrestrictive but firm.

It’s not only Ros’s hand; it’s Crea’s, too. Crea’s arm and leg and part of his torso that had been torn apart by Rchimedes in a bout of magic high, sewn together through an excruciating pain that felt like a papercut compared to Crea’s desperation to keep Shion alive.

Observing had been the hardest thing Alba had ever done. It’s what he does worse, after all; he wasn’t made to sit back and watch. It’s yet another incredibly selfish side of him the public chooses to see as altruism, as if he were a gallant hero of ancient odes and not a boy just barely in the cusp of adulthood witnessing his best friend’s murder.

Ros is nervous, he can tell. Not nervous of him, but nervous in a way that suggests a vulnerability he’s not used to presenting so openly, as if he’s offering Alba’s knife his throat instead of his arm to his lips. It’s a show of trust, and Alba thanks him with another fluttering kiss, and he keeps moving upward.

Alba doesn’t need to say I love you for Ros to hear him, not as he finally leans in to kiss his lips, and Ros doesn’t need to say me too for Alba to know. He feels it in the way Ros’s right hand lingers touches to his abdomen searching to soothe a scar that was never there, a reminiscence of the time Alba had been sixteen and sliced clean in half by Dezember’s razor-sharp shadows, a reminder that good days always came to an end and Ros felt himself undeserving of them.

Feels it in the way Ros meets him halfway and pushes instead of pulling, shoulders taught with pent up tension finally relaxing, in the way he pulls him closer and doesn’t let go. Alba sighs against his lips, thinking, I’ve wanted this for so long, I’ve wanted you by my side since I met you, I don’t want this to end.

Ros kisses him back and it’s like all those nights of exchanged longing glances and days fighting the entire world back-to-back have all lead up to this, building up to this moment.

He’s loved Ros since he introduced himself as the royal soldier assigned to be his partner, and he loves him now as his friend and equal. Loves him when he’s drilling equations into Alba’s head and gives him no time for breaks while reminding him of the piles of work he still has to do, and loves him when he wakes up to a warm blanket draped over his shoulders that hadn’t been there before when he fell asleep on top of his books with a loose grip on his pen. Loved him then because he was a living reminder that Alba wasn’t an average joe from a rundown village where no one knew how to read anymore, loved him now because he taught him how to be a hero in more than a name and a heart-shaped emblem. They kiss and it feels like a promise that says: whatever may come, they’ll always have each other. They’ve fought tooth and nail to keep each other safe, and they will continue to fight until they can no longer stand as long as the other can smile.

That’s what being a hero is about. They taught each other that.

 

 

 

 

+

 

 

 

 

“You can call me Alba,” the boy had said, but Shion never did. He settled for Hero-san, his speech polite and carefully distanced because he can’t afford to lose someone else dear to him, not again, and Alba huffs with a fine, then you’re Soldier.

It’s easier to not get close, to cut off any possible connection from the bud before it could get the chance to sprout into something dangerous.

You can’t survive this world unscathed once you’ve lost someone you loved. He and his father are the proof of that.

Hero-san’ suits him just fine. Hero-san establishes their relationship and draws the line between work and their personal lives. Hero-san reminds him of what he came here to do and the distractions that needed to be avoided.

Creasion is a hero only through title. Being a hero implies altruism and selflessness and an immediate willingness to put aside one’s own needs in order to sacrifice it all for the sake of the world, but he has none of that to offer.

The world had been cruel to him, and he had chosen to pay it in kind.

He didn't owe it anything.

 

 

 

 

He doesn’t know when Hero-san had shifted from a firm reminder not to get attached into a nickname that curled the corner of his lips up into a smile that wasn’t nearly as mocking as it looked.

Hero-san had been a boundary he did not want to cross; by the time he noticed he was standing at the other end of the line, he knew he never wanted—couldn’t— to go back.

Traveling with Alba was fun. Ros had initially tagged along for his own investigations, but it wasn’t his intention to stay for so long. He had chosen Alba because he was interesting; sticking around guaranteed he’d never come across a dull time. That’s all there was to it, at first. He was allowed this small selfishness after being alone for more years than he cared to keep count of.

Embarking on a journey through the world had been his dream (but Crea was gone, and Shion remained, living for his sake, even if it felt more like aimless wander with a heart too heavy) long, long ago; after a thousand years, the world had changed enough to make him feel like a stranger to his own skin. Alba offered pleasant company that distracted him from his own mind.

He often found himself poking at the fireplace in their nightly tents looking at Alba’s thin blanket rise and fall with each gentle breath, thinking he didn’t mind if things stayed like this forever. He knows this kind of peaceful life wasn’t meant to last, not for people like him who were born for tragedy and were a nest for chaos ready to strike, but Alba’s sleeping face made him feel something akin to hope.

“Sometimes, the way you look at Alba-san reminds me a little of how Mama looked at Papa,” Ruki confesses one such night, and though her voice is light, her eyes are mourning. There’s a small smile on her lips, but Ros does not miss the way she said looked.

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that Ruki is only ten years old and utterly alone, had everything ripped away from her in the blink of an eye with no time to process any of it. It’s easy to forget, too, that Ros (Shion) knows much too well what that’s like.

But then she turns to look up at him, lilac eyes shimmering with not so secret glee (and she’s so much stronger than he’d been at her age, dealing with loss with a head held high even if her knees still wobbled, seeking to right wrongs that were not truly hers to fix), and he finds no remorse in the way he knocks on the top of her head with his knuckles. She immediately yelps and covers the harassed spot of pink hair with her oversized sleeves, wailing, “Wha!?”

Love is a concept too foreign for him to wrap his head around again. Love had died together with messy dark brown hair and lively bright blue eyes over thousands of years ago, shrivelled up Shion’s heart into something trite and rotten and unsalvageable.

Ros was a lone runaway royal soldier, not the hero of legend people so thoughtlessly revered. Ros was a reminder of all he had lost and would never get back.

(Ros was not supposed to feel like home, but much later, when Alba stops calling him Soldier, when he slips up sometimes and calls him Ros instead of Shion because Ros was all he’d ever known before, it was hard not to think of the name as anything else but.

Then Alba died, just like Crea did, and he could no longer deny it.

Ros isn’t the only one who has nightmares. Alba sleeps through clenched teeth and arms wrapped around his torso, looking for a fatal wound that wasn’t there. He hadn’t felt the pain, but his body remembered.

Ros doesn’t know if Alba had ever known he died back then. He doesn’t ask. It’s not necessary, anyway, because there would never be a next time; Ros won’t let there be one.)

“You were saying something so stupid I immediately felt an itch to bully you,” he explains brightly, as if honesty and earnestness alone would excuse it all. Ruki knows she’s not spared from his mockery for being a little girl, but she does get a special treatment in the way she takes jabs at him that he doesn’t deny, and she takes full advantage of that.

“How mean!” She pouts at him and swings her arms towards him, but he only presses a finger to her forehead to stop her from getting closer and hitting him. There’s no vitriol in either of their words, but this isn’t a conversation he wanted to have. Not now, and not ever.

Still, his eyes seek Alba once more. He’s turned on his side and his arms are around his chest as if he were hugging something in his dreams, mouth wide open with snores so loud it'd be no wonder if monsters were to come ambush them. It’s annoying, so Ros picks up a rock and throws it at his head. Alba wakes up with surprising speed, looking around in alarmed confusion while his hand searches blindly for his sword, and Ros laughs loudly and unapologetically. Ruki looks at him with disapproval, not because of his cruel actions, but because he used them as an excuse to run away from their conversation, but he pays her no mind.

Ros doesn’t know if he’s capable of love, not anymore. Any other possibility terrifies him, so he simply doesn’t think about them. He enjoys what little peace he has left and unburdens himself from whatever complicated feelings wished to surface. He lays down to the sound of Alba’s whining and closes his eyes listening to Ruki’s lecturing.

He doesn’t know if he’s capable of love anymore, but as he falls into the first peaceful, dreamless slumber he’s had in a long time, he lets himself believe he can learn again if they stay by his side.